SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's tech rocket ship continues to amass stellar benchmarks and growth statistics, but a pair of tech experts warned Wednesday that failure to address pressing issues like employment diversity, rising housing costs, traffic congestion and poor air quality could bring the voyage back down to Earth.
Cydni Tetro, Women Tech Council co-founder and president, along with Clint Betts, Silicon Slopes and Utah Technology Council executive director, joined staff from the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, and about 80 attendees, for a state-of-the-industry discussion Wednesday at the institute's headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City.
Both local tech watchers celebrated the sector's continued rise to prominence as the state's primary economic driver — a position reflected in data recently released by Gardner researchers — but each also highlighted potential pitfalls that could end up derailing current momentum.
Tetro, whose organization is working to enhance the "tech pipeline" from building a stronger presence of women from enrollment in science, math and engineering curriculum at the high school level up to the advancement of women into tech executive positions, noted the state was leading the country in gender pay gap while also lagging behind the national average of women employed in the tech space.
"Diversity needs to be top-down in order to grow," Tetro said. "We know that diverse teams create revenue and profits. In Utah, at the executive level, just 5 percent of positions are occupied by women."
Gardner senior research economist Levi Pace has been working on a study focused on Utah's technology and innovation sector, compiling statistics reflecting a growing economic powerhouse. Those data points show Utah tech directly and indirectly accounting for over 300,000 jobs in the state, paying wages that are 75 percent higher, on average, than the state's other industries and generating nearly $30 billion of the state's annual GDP, or about $1 of every $6 generated in the state.
Pace, however, shared some additional data Wednesday that exposes one of the weaknesses of the sector, with only 14.6 percent of Utah tech jobs occupied by women, against a national rate of about 22 percent. Tech, through the national filter, far underperforms the average rate of gender equity, with all other occupations compiled as a group, averaging about 48 percent parity.
Betts recently assumed new responsibilities as Silicon Slopes took over administration of the Utah Technology Council, adding a political advocacy component to the education and outreach work of the Slopes group. He noted for a long time, Utah tech startups were collectively intent on staying focused on the challenges that come with starting and growing businesses.
"As a community we have historically avoided policy and getting too much in the weeds in going to Capitol Hill and advocating," Betts said. "For a long time, entrepreneurs were saying, 'Just ignore that, build your company and build it the right way and that will solve most of your problems.'"
But a reality check led to changes in that stance. Addressing issues like rising housing costs and congestion, which Betts noted are approaching "crisis" levels, have become of critical importance to the tech community, as have investment in public school education in science, math and engineering topics as well as diversity-building.
"What we’ve learned as we’ve matured as an ecosystem is, that’s not true, Betts said. "We really do need a voice on these issues."
Betts noted that tax reform proposals that rose up in the last legislative session — an effort ultimately punted to interim committees but not before it raised the ire of numerous members of the state's business community — provide a good example of an effort that lacked, but probably needed, input from the Utah tech sector.
"Nobody reached out to us about (the tax reform proposal)," Betts said. "It’s easy to say that’s a failure of politicians, but it's also a failure on us as a community to have not organized ourselves in a way that we could speak out on these issues.
"This combination with the Utah Technology Council will help solve that."
In response to a Deseret News request for comment, a spokesman for Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the Legislature has worked to create an environment in which Utah businesses, including tech efforts, have had a chance to thrive.
Wilson's chief of staff, Greg Hartley, also noted that numerous tech companies have been the beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded incentives but the community failed to offer "constructive solutions" after the tax reform proposal was publicly released, which preceded the creation of the new Silicon Slopes/Utah Technology Council coalition.
Hartley also invited the tech community to participate in the ongoing effort to address revamping the state's tax structure.
"Utah legislators have worked hard to make good decisions and create one of the most business-friendly states in the nation," said Hartley. "As a result, entrepreneurs have had success and our tech sector has thrived. We appreciate their contribution to the state.
"If they have solutions they’d like to suggest, we look forward to hearing from them.”
Tetro predicted the challenges facing the state and its growing tech sector could, and would be addressed, but doing so will require a collaborative willingness to find middle ground.
"It will take the collective work of all of us to make the changes," Tetro said. "And it will require all of us to make some compromises along the way."